You call it Halloween; we call it Samhain

by Julia O'Farrell

Samhain, popularly known as Halloween or All Hallows Eve, begins at sundown on October 31st. This is a magical holiday that dates back to the British Isles. The Celts called it Samhain ("sow-in") meaning "summers end" or "Last Harvest". This day marked the last day of summer and the beginning of a long and cold winter.

It is also the eve of the Celtic New Year and the Feast of the Dead. It is believed that the veil between the spirit world and our world are thin at this time. Single candles were lit and left in the windows of homes in order to help guide the spirits of their ancestors and loved ones. Offerings of food and altars were left on the doorsteps as well as places set at the table and extra chairs around the hearth when the feasting began.

Bonfires were lit by the Druids in this ancient time to celebrate, while crops and animals were sacrificed to the Celtic deities. During this celebration, costumes were worn -- usually consisting of animal heads and skins. Fortune telling was also a popular event among the festivities. It was thought that due to the veil being thin, that their ability to fortune tell was greater as they had the help of their ancestors. This brought comfort to those who lived in this time, as the fortunes usually consisted of the positive things that were to happen in the upcoming year. Direction and hope were given in the fortunes for the long harsh winter that would soon be knocking on their front door.

Many traditions of the "Jack-O-Lantern" date to this time. Turnips and pumpkins were hollowed out and carved to look like protective spirits to ward off those who were mischievous and looking to make trouble. It was thought that when the candle light flickered that the spirits of their ancestors were playing with the flame. There is an old Irish tale called "Jack of the Lantern" about a man named Jack who could enter neither heaven nor hell and would wander the night with a candle lit turnip...or so the ole' Irish tale goes.

The tradition to "trick or treat" is a complex one that has been said to have numerous origins. The most common one is that it was brought over by Irish immigrants in the 1840's. It was an old tradition to go door to door seeking money, food, or donations for the New Years' feast. This custom was most likely brought over to the U.S., and that from there, the tradition of trick or treating during Halloween was born. However, the actual saying "trick or treat" was not a common saying in the U.S. until the late 1930's.

Many of the old traditions of yesteryear Samhain are still practiced in this day and age. An Irish dish called Colannon is a favorite in our home. It is made up of potatoes and cabbage. Four items are put into this dish, each one representing a fortune for the upcoming year:

  • 1 thimble for a spinster
  • 1 button for a bachelor
  • 1 ring for a marriage
  • 1 coin for prosperity.

It is said that if you find one of these items in your portion of the dish, that fortune will find you in the new year. For those interested, here is the recipe:


4 cups mashed potatoes
2 - 1/2 cups cabbage (cooked and chopped fine)
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup onion (chopped very fine and sauteed)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

Blend all ingredients (except cabbage) over low heat. Turn the heat to medium and add cabbage (will be slightly green). Stir occasionally until warm, then add fortune items. Stir well & enjoy! (And remember to warn those eating this of the fortunes in the dish, we don't want anyone choking!)

So, whether you call this wonderful holiday Samhain, or Halloween have a wonderful celebration and may your ancestors bless you with good fortune for the upcoming year!

Julia O'Farrell is a licensed massage therapist and she is the mom of four magical little men, a fairy princess and wife to Jeremy.

Copyright © Julia O-Farrell. Publishing right retained by, LLC.